Tiny Toon: IBM Makes a Movie Out of Atoms

Big Blue's researchers have set a Guinness record with their new cartoon — every pixel's an atom.

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A Boy and His Atom is less than 90 seconds long. It doesn’t have much of a plot, or any big laughs. And the animation is rudimentary — it’s monochromatic, blocky and generally reminiscent of the graphics I programmed on my Radio Shack TRS-80 computer in 1978, only not quite as fancy.

And yet IBM’s new cartoon — yes, IBM made a cartoon — is remarkable. It was produced at IBM Research’s Almaden Research Center in Northern California, by a bunch of scientists who used a scanning tunneling microscope as their animation tool. The pixels are individual atoms, nudged into place to form a picture. (The Guinness folks have certified this as the smallest movie ever made.)

IBM has been playing around with individual atoms for a long time: two of its Zurich-based researchers invented the scanning tunneling microscope in 1981 and won the Nobel Prize in Physics for it in 1986. The company’s Silicon Valley lab — where the hard disk was born in 1956 — uses the microscope to explore futuristic storage technologies. By using a tiny magnet, it’s shown that it’s possible to store one bit of information using 12 atoms, versus the 1 million atoms a hard drive needs to do the job. That discovery could eventually lead to digital storage that crams radically more data into far less space than any existing technology.

[image] IBM's atomic animation studio


IBM’s atomic-animation equipment

The microscope needs “a low temperature in a very, very clean environment, so the only atoms that are there are the ones we want to be there,” says IBM researcher Andreas Heinrich. “The devil is in the details, as usual — it’s a complicated machine, but it can work very reliably.”

It occurred to the Almaden researchers that if you can use a subminiature magnet to flip bits on and off, you could also use it to create frames of animation. Over roughly 10 18-hour workdays, a team of four people created the cartoon, with storytelling assistance from an animation company called 1st Ave. Machine. Using the microscope to position individual atoms, Heinrich explains, is a bit like placing eggs in an egg cartoon: you push them in a general direction, and they plop into the precise spot where they want to sit.

The moviemakers had a total of about 10,000 atoms’ worth of resolution to work with, which didn’t seem like much at first. But “you can actually see his surprise when the trampoline appears,” says Heinrich, speaking of the movie’s stick-figure protagonist. “His hair is moving, his eyes are blinking — that’s the genius in the design.” The whole thing takes up 242 frames of action.

Here’s IBM’s own movie on the making of A Boy and His Atom.

Will IBM produce any sequels to its first atomic cartoon? It has no plans to go back to the, um, drawing board. “We don’t want to make movies for making movies’ sake,” Heinrich says. “Hopefully this will resonate, and people will get interested in science.” If the supershort tale has a message, it’s that “science can be fun — go study science, basically.”